WRITTEN BY RENEE DIXSON

It took several years for Stories about Hope to come to its current form. My very first impulse to do something was after an exhibition my partner and I attended back in 2013. The exhibition featured art works drawn by people in an immigration detention centre. The drawings were beautiful and painful simultaneously, yet the tour guide was very pessimistic. One of the visitors asked him whether there was anything positive or hopeful for these people in the detention centre, he responded: “No. Everything is bad”. While I could understand his embedded political claim to close the camps, his pessimism was erasing human agency, reducing the hope that had been created in these individuals through their art and getting their voices heard. At that time, I could barely speak English, so I didn’t have a chance to respond to him, but that overheard conversation has stayed with me.

The first version of Stories about Hope was a deeply autobiographical series of photographs, produced in black and white as a metaphor for the emptiness and numbness we felt. I had become very familiar with the rhetoric about refugees in Australia. It was a mix of the persistent narrative of victimhood on one side, and refugees being a burden to society on the other. I did not identify with either. I also struggled with the fact that being defined as a refugee by society, meant to only be a refugee and no one else. For me this label was completely erasing any humanity, history, education, achievements and so on. The other main drive for me with Stories about Hope was the imperative of storytelling. When people find out that you came to Australia seeking protection, they only want to hear that story. You are constantly asked to tell details about your trauma and pain. You are being held in your past, and it feels like you are not allowed to move on. At the end, I came to a multimedia approach with the project: photography, short documentary films and writing. I started looking for people who would want to share their stories with me. But unlike popular demand, I was interested not in their stories of trauma, but their stories of dignity. Ethics was an underlining principle of the whole undertaking for me. This has become the concept of Stories about Hope.

The stories celebrate the courage and resilience of people who have undertaken diverse journeys to Australia throughout different points in history. It was important to challenge society’s stereotypes about who can be a ‘refugee’. There are 8 participants in the project, from Holocaust survivors, queer people to our most recent young arrivals. The stories prove that your past does not define you, but can give you more strength to move forward with confidence. Starting from an autobiographical account and moving on to tell stories of other people who sought safety in Australia, I aim to challenge false narratives of victimhood and burden to society. The project explores what it means to be of a refugee background, questions of identity and belonging. It shines an important light on the voices, perspectives and experiences erased from public conversation.

I was privileged to form a team of incredible people along the way who helped me tremendously with the project. My partner Tina, aside from being a project participant, was responsible for communications and fundraising. Elias Kelleher wrote the stories for the book, based on interviews that were conducted by myself. Most importantly, Amber Hearn became the curator of the exhibition. Thanks to her the way we displayed Stories about Hope made the message so much more powerful.

“It was important to me that, although the focus of ‘Stories about Hope’ is on the positive, the show needed to begin with an image that alludes to the pain and memories suffered not only by the artist, but all who are represented in the show.  Renee uses her own body as a canvas, scrawling messages about her experiences in a raw and honest, yet sensitive presentation. 

The viewer then goes on to journey though the space, encountering the individual portraits of each subject, all of whom hold a friendly smiling disposition, yet they are clipped to a big metal gate, as if they are emerging into light from a dark bound past. The final point of contact with these stories is the film at the end, projecting the interviews with these subjects. Although the focus is on the positivity and resilience of the individuals, we must not forget the pain they experienced and triumphed through to get to this point. The gates serve as a powerful symbolic statement of the borders of this country being open wide, or that they should be open, to those who seek safety here. However, they also suggest the opposite dark side which is not the focus in the photos or documentary, of being locked up behind gates, which is an all too familiar story for many of the people who come to Australia seeking asylum.

In ‘Stories about Hope’ the gates are wide open for the viewer to walk between, experiencing each of the subjects up close and personal as they journey through the space the work inhabits. The viewer is given the opportunity to connect with these stories, with these people, in a way that most of the portrayals of people from refugee backgrounds do not allow.  In this exhibition, I not only wanted to highlight these wonderful people and all they have achieved, I wanted to use the space to pose questions about our system and allow people to connect on a more personal and relatable, rather than abstracted, level to people who have come from a refugee background. ”

– Amber Hearn

We were successful in securing small grants from the City of Sydney Council and the Inner West Council. We have also run a crowdfunding campaign. The support from the public was extremely important to me because it was not only about donating to the good cause, but about the broader support for the arts. In the current state of lack of funding, it is extremely hard to be an emerging artist in Australia. When your art depicts politicised issues, it becomes even harder. The approach that I took to depict people through the lens of dignity and not victimhood was both successful and challenging. It is easy to sell suffering. It is extremely hard to sell strength. Yet, we were successful in producing the project with the resources that we had and with people who believed in it. We launched the project in December 2016. This year it will travel to Southern Highlands in May, Melbourne in June and Sydney in July and there are more shows in negotiations following this. See more here

With the project, I wanted to leave a long-lasting impact. We have adopted a give back concept, when we are donating profit from the book sales to organisations that are working with people seeking asylum. It becomes this circle that people not only see the art and raise their awareness but they are supporting a bigger cause and making a difference to people’s lives.

I feel very grateful that many individuals and groups are showing their leadership and are willing to shift persistent negative narratives. In the debates about people seeking asylum, we should be speaking about human dignity, courage, resilience, and strength. This is what the Stories about Hope project is about.